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Terps freshman Michal Cekovsky isn't great vs. Bowie State, but he is greatly improved

COLLEGE PARK — In the Maryland men's basketball team's first preseason game last week against San Francisco State, freshman center Michal Cekovsky seemed unsure of his new surroundings. He failed to score in 18 minutes off the bench, taking just one shot, and grabbed only two rebounds against a much smaller team.

After being more assertive in practice in the week following the game, the 7-footer from Slovakia was rewarded with a start in Saturday's 89-47 demolition of another Division II opponent, Bowie State.

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Cekovky didn't look like the second coming of Joe Smith, who more than two decades ago went from being a relatively unknown freshman to the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft after his sophomore year. Despite modest numbers, Cekovsky might yet be second coming of Alex Len.

Said coach Mark Turgeon: "Checko is further along defensively [than I thought he would be]. He still is just a little bit late. He altered some shots that he's probably going to block later in the season, which will help us. I just thought he was a whole different player than he was last Saturday. He wasn't nearly as nervous and he was in the right spot most of the time."

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The final stat line of four points, five rebounds, two assists and countless altered shots in 22 minutes gave Turgeon some hope that his team's inside game can go from the glaring weakness it was last season to a better-than-average complement to what is expected to be a strong perimeter game.

"We started a bigger lineup … and I just wanted to see how it worked," Turgeon said of playing Cekovsky at center, 6-8 senior Jon Graham (11 rebounds, eight points) at power forward and 6-9 junior Jake Layman (18 points, seven rebounds) at small forward. "Defensively, it was good for us."

Offensively, it wasn't bad. Cekovsky and sophomore center Damonte Dodd (seven points, four rebounds, two blocked shots) showed the kind of feel for the low post that Charles Mitchell, Shaquille Cleare and a freshman-year Dodd didn't a season ago.

Cekovsky passed and dribbled out of double teams. He handled the ball once on a fast break, feeding guard Dez Wells for a dunk. Later, he went up as if he were going to shoot, only to make a jump pass to Dodd for a slam as the shot clock was expiring.

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"It's part of my game, because we have really good shooters," Cekovsky said. "When they double-team me, I can find someone who's open and can shoot. It's a big part of my game."

Two years older than Len was when he got to Maryland, Cekovsky seems to have a better feel at the offensive end.

"He can really pass, he understands spacing," Turgeon said. "He's got a little bit of that European game to him. He made some good passes against the press offense last week. He had two assists last game. He's just scratching the surface. It will be fun for all of us to watch him improve as the season goes on."

Said Layman, who came in a year after Len: "I watched Alex a little [on TV] his freshman year and I think they're kind of similar, but I think Checko is a little further along as of right now. I think this year, he's going to have to score in the post for us."

Playing with his back to the basket for the first time, Cekovsky is still trying to figure out how to do just that. After missing a follow-up slam last week and a couple of early chances near the rim Saturday, Cekovsky got his first basket at Maryland on a dunk.

It came on a slick feed from from freshman guard Dion Wiley late in the second half, the kind of play the Terps had trouble making last year with since-departed Seth Allen, who was not so willing a passer, and big men with bad hands.

Cekovsky has shown an ability to shoot from outside in practice but has been hesitant to pull up for jumpers in games. Cekovsky said after Saturday's game that it's a matter of wanting to do what the coaches ask, though his offensive game "is coming," he said.

After playing in two preseason games, Cekovsky said the regular-season opener Friday against Wagner "will be so much easier for me now." Off the court, he is getting used to his new surroundings, too.

When a reporter asked him about his comfort level Saturday, Cekovsky smiled.

"What do you mean? From one to 10?" he asked. "I feel much more comfortable. It's getting better."

Another reporter asked Cekovsky for a number, as assistant coach Dustin Clark often does when he tries to gauge how the freshman feels.

"One to 10? Six," he said.

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